I’ve been a vegetarian for almost five years now, and the questions I’m asked most frequently all have to do with how I get enough protein. In a society where we’ve learned to equate “protein” with “meat,” many people are surprised to learn how many protein-rich plants are out there. So whether you’re kicking around the idea of going veg, trying to cut down on meat consumption a little, or just looking for an extra protein boost in your diet, check out these ten foods!
1. Lentils: In the winter, lentil soup is a weekly staple for me. There are some really delicious recipes out there—can’t go wrong with lentils, veggies, and spices tossed into a crockpot!
2. Flaxseed: Use it in recipes for breads or muffins, or just blend a scoop in with a fruit smoothie.
3. Chia seed: Many people call chia a “superfood,” and when it comes to protein, they’re on to something. They can actually function as an egg substitute in your recipes!
4. Quinoa: Texture-wise, this Aztec grain is basically the love child of couscous and rice. It contains all nine amino acids needed to make a complete protein, and works well as the grains portion of a meal.
5. Hempseed: In recent years, hemp has been making a comeback, and for good reason, since the hemp plant is incredibly useful and versatile. Hempseed is also a complete protein, and is good in baked goods, salads, and smoothies.
6. Nuts and nut butters: Almonds top the list for protein-packed nuts, followed by pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts, and cashews. Be careful not to overdo them, though, as the calories can add up quickly. A handful a day is perfect.
7. Spirulina: It’s a type of freshwater algae, but don’t let that turn you off; spirulina consists of about 60% protein by weight (plus tons of antioxidants and minerals). Buying the dried powder and mixing it into smoothies is most people’s preferred consumption method.
8. Beans: White, red, black—the color doesn’t matter. Beans are high in protein and very flexible to cook with. I like using them in soups or wrapping them up with quinoa and veggies in a whole-grain burrito.
9. Soy (tempeh, tofu, edamame): Not everyone is a fan of soy products, but they are inarguably a quick way to hit your protein RDA for the day. Personally, I prefer soy-based veggie burgers to tofu.
10. Dark leafy green vegetables: This might be the plant protein source that people least expect, since we think of leafy greens as “rabbit food,” the polar opposite of meat. But the rabbits know what they’re doing, because spinach, collards, kale, and other dark green vegetables have high percentages of the macronutrient.
It’s really not too difficult to meet your protein needs without animal products, especially since these days we also have access to a wide variety of supplements and enriched foods like protein bars and shakes. Experiment with these foods on Meatless Mondays (or any other days) and see what you think.